Burundi: U.N. Warns Violence Could Escalate Into Ethnic Conflict

A protester holds his hands up in front of soldiers during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, May 19. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

United Nations officials have said that violence in Burundi is in danger of escalating into "atrocity crimes," raisings fears of an ethnic conflict reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Reuters reported.

At least 240 people have been killed in Burundi since April when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, a move that sparked a failed military coup and sustained violence by both supporters and opponents of Nkurunziza. More than 200,000 people have fled the tiny central African country since the violence erupted, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame implored Burundi not to follow the same path as his country, where 21 years ago ethnic conflict led to a genocide in which more than 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. The violence was between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, with most of the violence being perpetrated by the Hutu majority. Burundi is about 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi. "They should have learned the lesson of our history," Kagame told an audience in the Rwandan capital Kigali on Friday, the Guardian reported.

On Monday, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman said in a United Nations Security Council meeting that the recent "rapid escalation of violence" has "serious implications for stability and ethnic harmony in Burundi." The U.N.'s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng implored the Security Council to "act before it is too late."

Violence continued over the weekend in Burundi. Nine people, including a U.N. staff member, were shot dead in a bar in the capital Bujumbura on Saturday. The bar was alleged to have been a former meeting spot for those opposed to Nkurunziza's third term, according to the U.N. News Center.

Nkurunziza set a November 7 deadline for an amnesty of illegal weapons and said that those who did not hand over the weapons would be treated as criminals, Reuters reported. The International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution NGO based in Brussels, said that language used by Nkurunziza and other government officials was "chillingly similar" to the rhetoric used in Rwanda prior to the genocide.

The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told the Security Council that "inflammatory language" by government members suggested that the crisis "could increasingly take on an ethnic dimension."

France tabled a draft resolution at the Security Council meeting that could see targeted sanctions implemented against leaders in Burundi and also asked for an increased U.N. presence in the country. Burundi's foreign affairs minister, Alain Nyamitwe, told the Security Council that the country was "not in flames" and that criminal acts were being "reined in." He added that the government was ready to work with partners in order that there be "no longer fear that there would be a genocide."

Burundi is one of the world's poorest countries and only emerged from a 12-year ethnic conflict in 2005, in which some 300,000 people lost their lives.